I’m grateful once again to have our friend David Maren of Tendergrass Farms pen today’s guest post. This is the second post in a three part series on the assertions that retailers make about the way their poultry, pork, and beef is raised.
In last week’s post I shared some information about a few common and often misleading claims that poultry companies make about the way their chickens and turkeys are raised. We looked at the fact that while most companies don’t actually lie to their customers directly, they do rely on meticulously calculated marketing terminology that leads their customers to believe that their birds were raised in ways that they, in actual fact, were not. I labored to expose the unfortunate reality that many poultry companies respond to the public’s demand for alternatively raised birds with dishonest advertising rather than real changes in the lucrative CAFO poultry production system that their customers increasingly don’t want to support. In the pork industry today, we face many of the same realities of deceptive marketing, empty claims, and regulation loopholes – a few of which I will attempt to uncover in this post. I won’t bore you with an explanation of every pork claim used in this day and age but the examples below can serve as illustrations of the type of analytical discernment needed in the marketplace today.
In the spirit of full disclosure I should start by mentioning that I happen to love raising and eating pastured pigs. This evening as I sit at my desk on my little farm here in Floyd County, Virginia, a herd of less than 20 pastured pigs is lying outside my bedroom window in a big snoring heap in the tall grass. I think that pastured pork farming is pretty cool. However, I happen to have a first cousin in Iowa whom I respect considerably even though he raises pigs using a very different model. He almost single-handedly raises about 25,000 pigs every year in 14 state of the art fully computerized CAFO buildings. I’ve seen his operation many times and I know that he is proud of what he does. The system that he runs is an extraordinary example of engineering genius and he feeds a tremendous number of people through the conventional pork system that he’s a part of. While I differ with him greatly from an applied agricultural philosophy standpoint I respect him as a fellow farmer nonetheless.
I bring this up because although I might enjoy writing an article on exactly why I believe that the pork that I raise is better than the pork my cousin raises, my intention throughout this 3-post series on livestock production claims is to inform you about the choices you have when it comes to buying meat, not to convince you to share my particular point of view. In the paleo community there are lots of worthy articles that have already been written regarding the health benefits of grass fed meats, pastured meats, and omega-3’s so I feel no need to convince anyone of the merits of one production method over another in this series. My objective is to sketch a broad but accurate outline of the primary ways that pigs are raised and the methods by which these differing production models are craftily misrepresented through marketing. In short, my goal is for you to be able to tell my cousin’s pork from mine when you go shopping this week despite the haze of promotional terms that you may encounter, no matter which one you end up actually purchasing.
In this screenshot the Niman Ranch website expounds on their pork’s “all-natural” claim
Niman Ranch is probably the most renowned name in the natural pork industry. It was founded in the early 1970’s by a man by the name of Bill Niman. Bill originally raised 100 percent of their pork on pasture. Now Niman Ranch is owned by Natural Food Holdings (part of Hilco Equity Partners). The Niman Ranch homepage features an uplifting photograph of a couple of speckled sows, outdoors, grazing with a few piglets trailing behind. On the page that details the superiority of their all-natural pork it is mentioned that the genetic lines that they use are “particularly well suited to an outdoor environment.” Lastly, the statement is made that Niman Ranch pork is “raised outdoors or in deeply bedded pens.”
The term “natural” is a term that the FDA has yet to define (with or without the modifier “all” which just means “entirely”). The FDA, however, does say that “the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”1 The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service goes slightly farther in saying that when the term “natural” is used the meaning of the term must be specified2 (as Niman Ranch does above). Note that this means that according to the FDA and the FSIS definitions (or lack thereof), the term “all natural” doesn’t necessarily have any bearing whatsoever on how the animal was actually raised. It simply means that it does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. While it certainly can mean more than that, it doesn’t have to. As far as you know, was there ever any practical need to add food colorings, flavorings, or any other ingredients to a raw pork chop to start with? I don’t think so.
Now let’s look at the whole picture. The Niman Ranch website shows photos of pigs grazing on grassy pasture. It says that the Niman Ranch pigs are genetically well suited for the outdoors. Notice, however, that the only direct claim about how their pigs are raised says “raised outdoors or in deeply bedded pens.” Hang on a second, did they really just say “or”? From my experience, raising pigs outdoors where they can actually graze is quite expensive (mostly due to labor and land costs) and, rather conveniently for Niman Ranch, the use of the word “or” allows them to raise up to 100% of their pigs in “deeply bedded pens” while still maintaining that this statement is technically true.
A year or two before I co-founded Tendergrass Farms I seriously considered raising pigs for Niman Ranch. I was struggling to find a viable market for my pastured pigs locally and I thought that at least from what I had read on their website they looked like a company that I’d be happy to partner with. I contacted the Niman Ranch headquarters and was given a cell phone number for the field representative who was responsible for my region. One of my first questions for him was about their production standards. I believe I asked him how many pigs Niman Ranch recommended to graze per acre of pasture or something similar. As soon as I had asked the question I could almost see him smiling over the phone line as he explained to this young naive farmer that only a small percentage of Niman Ranch pigs are actually raised on pasture. In the whole east coast region he said that there are virtually no pasture-based Niman producers. In preparation for this blog post I sent him an email this week to make sure that this was still true. He confirmed just yesterday that by his estimate well over 75% of Niman Ranch pig farms utilize warehouse-style buildings with straw for bedding, referred to as “deeply bedded barns.” During those first few conversations that we had a few years back he also told me that for the most part they had moved away from the traditional Duroc, Chester White, and Berkshire breeds that the website boasts about in favor of modern breeds developed by a certain multinational genetics company called PIC. Shocked and even slightly disillusioned, I quickly gave up the idea of ever raising pigs for Niman Ranch.
Does all of this mean that Niman Ranch pork is bad pork? I probably wouldn’t say that. But I would definitely be willing to say that the average Niman Ranch customer has likely been deceived into believing that they’re eating pastured pork when in fact they are not.
This Swift brand “premium” pork uses a different definition of “all natural” from the one used by Niman Ranch
Notice that this pork claims to be “premium.” As you may already be aware, this term does carry along with it a very strict government standard – but only in the context of high octane gasoline. When it comes to meat, “premium” means nothing at all.
Observe also that the definition that Swift uses for “all natural” is entirely different from that of Niman Ranch. One key element that is missing from Swift’s product description is the issue of artificial growth promotants and subtherapeutic antibiotics. You might just assume that “all natural” pigs wouldn’t be raised with a daily ration of antibiotics or pharmaceutical growth enhancers but in fact there is a very high probability that this product in made from pigs that were fed these types of additives right up until slaughter.
Artificial hormone use is illegal in pork production in the US but the use of other artificial growth-promoting chemicals is extensive, far beyond the mere use of antibiotics for this purpose. The best example of this is a chemical feed additive called Paylean. Paylean is the brand name for ractopamine, a beta-adrenoceptor agonist that artificially promotes leanness in pigs.3 As the paleo world is already well aware, most Americans don’t like to eat much lard. This causes big problems for the pork industry but Paylean eases the burden. Pigs are naturally very fatty animals and Paylean greatly decreases the amount of fat that pigs produce as they grow. Unlike some drugs, Paylean requires no withdrawal period whatsoever so pigs can be fed Paylean even on the day of slaughter. The Swift brand “all natural” pork in the image above was in all likelihood given this drug. Isn’t it interesting that ractopamine has been banned in all pork in mainland China, Russia, and the European Union but in the US it is allowed to be used even in “all natural” pork?
A close up of a Sugar Mountain Farm pork label claiming to be free ranging outdoors, & “crate free.”
The most striking characteristic of the marketing claims that are made on this label compared with those made by Niman Ranch and Swift above is their uncompromising specificity. The term “free ranging outdoors” (not to be confused with “free range”) is actually synonymous with “pastured.” Both terms would refer to the fact that the animals at Sugar Mtn. Farm are actually raised outdoors where they forage for grass and other green leafy matter as a source of food. As with poultry, the term “free range” is often used to refer to pigs raised in CAFO-style buildings with small areas outdoors where the pigs may or may not occasionally venture out – far from the grassy meadow that the term “free range” tends to bring to most people’s minds. Sugar Mountain Farm, however, specifically says that they free-range their pigs outdoors. If you take a look at their website you’ll see hundreds of photos that show that this is true even in the coldest winter months in Vermont when they have to actually feed their pigs hay!
The term “crate free” is somewhat less common. It refers to the fact that Sugar Mountain Farm pigs are raised from piglets born to sows that are managed without the use of gestation or farrowing crates. Gestation crates are an invention of the modern pork industry that resembles a cage slightly larger than the sow that resides within it. Gestation crates are a very space efficient (but arguably cruel) way to house sows during their 3 month, 3 week, and 3 day gestation period. Sugar Mtn. Farm makes it clear that they don’t use this management method with their sows by calling their pork “crate free.”
The other type of crate that is often used in the pork industry is the farrowing crate. The word farrow simply means to give birth in porcine terminology so a farrowing crate is a tightly confined area, usually about 3’ by 6’, where the sow gives birth to her piglets. In order to keep the 2-pound piglets from being crushed by their 400-pound mother they are usually confined to the farrowing crate for the first three to four weeks after birth. Protective “roll bars” allow the piglets plenty of room to walk around where their mother can’t kill them by mistake when she gets up, sits down, or rolls over. While Sugar Mountain Farm boasts that they don’t engage in this type of sow management the alternative may not be as humane as you would hope. When sows are given sufficient space to move around freely with their piglets the number of piglets that are stepped on and crushed to death goes up dramatically. On the farrowing crate question you essentially have to decide whether you feel that a sow being cramped and uncomfortable for a few weeks is more humane than a bucket of dead baby pigs. There are pros and cons on both sides of the issue but as we have seen with all other production claims so far it’s critical to put aside assumptions and do some research before supposing too much. There are some people who, through their research on the topic, have actually come to the position of being anti-gestation crate but pro-farrowing crate. This has been a very hot topic for even the biggest pork firms over the last few years.
I once brought this idea up to a lead researcher at a University of Minnesota alternative swine systems development program. Keep in mind that the man had spent a large part of his career developing “humane” alternatives to farrowing crates. I had just recently visited a farm where I had seen a sow that had killed all 9 piglets that she had given birth to because she was in an open pen with them. I asked the researcher if he really thought that farrowing crates were inhumane after taking into account the deaths of so many piglets that are virtually unavoidable in alternative systems. He said, “David, I actually agree with you. But the problem is that if you stood by that position you’d just be a voice in the wind. The consumer believes that farrowing crates are inhumane so we need to look for good alternatives.” (Just for the record there are no Tendergrass partner farms that currently use farrowing crates but we have a neutral stance when it comes to our farms purchasing piglets that were born in them.)
A Tendergrass Farms website screenshot showing that we claim to sell pastured pork
Here are Tendergrass Farms we call our pork a lot of things but one of them is “pastured.” One of the most common questions that we get here at Tendergrass Farms is, “Do you feed your pigs anything other than grass?” As with pastured poultry, many people assume that because we raise our pigs on grassy pastures then grass must be all they eat. The problem is that in order to function biologically pigs need a good source of protein, specifically lysine. Pigs are very resilient creatures so even though it isn’t necessarily good for their health it is in fact theoretically possible to raise them on pasture alone because they do eat a certain number of grubs and other insects that contain protein. That said, pastured pigs are almost universally rotationally grazed on pasture with access to some type of alternate feed source to keep them healthy. The nature and quantity of protein-rich feed that the pastured pigs are given varies a lot from farm to farm but the most common lysine sources are corn, roasted soybeans, and even out-of-date milk. In the case of Tendergrass and my pigs specifically, we even go to the trouble to make sure that the corn and soy that they’re fed was grown from non-GMO seed.
The best way to hold your pork provider accountable is to make sure that you really understand any and all claims that are being made. As I said regarding poultry, if an organization is marketing its products with integrity they’ll be proud to define their terms. There mere fact that certain pork may be called “gourmet” and sold on a website that also offers grass fed beef doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily what you hope it is. Pasture raised pork demands a premium price and unfortunately there are plenty of companies that are happy to take your money even if they can’t give you exactly what you came for..
1This quote can be found under “FDA Basics” on the FDA website.
2This regulation can be found on the USDA FSIS website under Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms
3The manufacturer of Paylean gives a helpful explanation of how it works on their site.
David Maren is a husband, father, farmer, and co-founder of Tendergrass Farms. Tendergrass Farms is a cooperative-style online grass fed meats shop that exists as a bridge between the often geographically isolated family farmer and committed grass fed meats enthusiasts like yourself. The Tendergrass Farms vision is to sustain family farms through making it easy for you to purchase their meats by taking advantage of appropriate technology and ultra-efficient transportation models that enable their meats to be shipped to fans all around the USA.